Suncorp Stadium remembers – The Veil and Memory
By Susan Prior
It was probably sometime in 2001. In the back of a shop selling oriental rugs, ethnic knickknacks and assorted beautiful objects in Toowoomba, I was having a cup of tea with my friend, shop-owner Phillipa Hahn. Textile artist Jill Kinnear joined us, and began to tell us the story of how she had been selected to produce a public artwork for the recently redeveloped Suncorp Stadium. At the time, Jill was an associate lecturer based at the University of Southern Queensland.
I recall Jill’s excitement as she explained her project. Suncorp, she told us, is built on a site of great historical significance – the site of the North Brisbane Burial Grounds.
Her plan was for something that would be much more than a nod to the site’s former use. It would be a memorial to all the souls interred there from the early days of Brisbane’s settlement, whatever their ethnicity, culture, or denomination. Her artwork involved taking shreds of fabric – to model a piece of white muslin burial shroud – and photograph it, magnifying it by about 80 times beyond the their original proportions, and then screen-printing these images in opaque white ceramic ink onto the glass panels that make up south-east wall.
Sixteen or so years after that conversation, just after dawn on a crisp Sunday morning in autumn, I find myself in a small remnant graveyard, the memorial reserve, tucked behind Christ Church, Milton, which sits bravely in the shadow of Suncorp Stadium, staring up in awe at her creation.
Before me is a shroud, a veil, of immense proportions hugging the contours of the stadium’s glass wall. It appears to be part of the building’s structure: the weaving of its warp and weft obvious; the folds, the rents and a huge knot all plainly evident. The sheer scale of this project is mind-blowing; the artwork consists of 96 screen-printed panes of laminated glass, each 2.4 m × 1.5 m in size, covering a total area of more than 330 m2.
Yet, it is so delicate and, in this context, exhibits an intense poignancy. As I stand admiring the city of Brisbane is uncharacteristically hushed; the clear air fizzes with sunlight bouncing across the massive expanse of glass. The intensity of the symbolism is extraordinary. The blue reflections off the glass bathe the tiny reserve in a freshness – creating a beautiful backdrop for this spiritual and contemplative space.
As with many things, it is helpful to know some history, because by understanding the past, we can appreciate the present.
The North Brisbane Burial Grounds site was established in September 1843 on a swampy tract of land just outside the bounds of the main settlement. Also known as the Paddington Cemetery and the Milton Cemetery, it was multi-denominational, albeit segregated, and the first official burial ground to serve Brisbane’s free settlers. It closed in August 1874, in part due to the speedy growth of Brisbane resulting in its overcrowding, and in part due to its unsuitability as a cemetery in the first place. Waterlogged graves meant it had become a health hazard.
The area fell into a state disrepair, becoming quite an eyesore and the subject of many ‘letters to the editor’. In 1907, Ithaca Council began the process of converting the site into a recreation park, finally achieving its aim in 1914, but not until after much debate about how and where to move the graves. Relatives were given a year to exhume and reinter their loved ones, but this process in itself was beset with problems. In the end, of the more than 5000 burials (some sources claim up to 10,000), only about 150 gravesites were exhumed and moved to the Toowong Cemetery.
Many headstones were sold off at auction, for who knows what purpose. In the Truth, on 17 November 1907, an ever-pragmatic Ithaca councillor was roundly admonished for suggesting that, ‘The tombstones are good road metal’. This is how it was reported:
In answer to, a question concerning the disposal of the headstones, Alderman White replied: ‘Break them up and use them for the footpaths; they make good road metal.’ And nobody even attempted to brain him with a ruler! … someone might at least have mercifully thrown him over a precipice if there was one convenient.
The journalist didn’t pull any punches, going on to refer to the Alderman as a Troglodyte!
Today, a small memorial reserve behind the church, and the church itself, of course, is all there is to show for this history.
Named Lang Park after John Dunmore Lang in recognition of his work in actively promoting the new colony, the site became a rubbish and night soil tip, a circus venue, a military base, and an athletics track, just to name a few uses, until finally, in the 1950s it became the home of Brisbane Rugby League.
I spoke to Glen Henderson, herself an artist and at the time the curator responsible for procuring the public art at the Stadium when it was refurbished in the early 2000s. She says: ‘My curatorial brief for the Glass Wall Memorial site called for the development of a design which represented a fitting memorial to those who were interned in Lang Park burial sites.’ She went on to say that to ensure funding for the artwork it also had to represent those who related to the site as the spiritual home of Rugby League.
Jill’s work, she says, works so well because it can be a metaphor with many meanings, depending on the perspective of the viewer.
A huge rent, or tear, slices down one face of the glass wall, while beneath it is a knot. The frayed edges of the tear have tendrils of broken threads, as if ripped asunder, symbolic of the grief and loss associated with the site. In 2005, Jill was awarded the Design Excellence Award for Veil and Memory. She is quoted in The Courier-Mail at the time as saying she was shocked at the level of grief that remained over losing the cemetery, and that her installation represents a commitment not to forget (‘Poignant stadium art “reveals itself slowly”,’ by Rosemary Sorensen).
She says, ‘As I researched I discovered that the image of torn cloth resonated with both (the Jewish and Anglican) church communities.’
Glen points to the religious meaning, harking back to the renting of the Temple Curtain in Jerusalem, but, she says, the strength and movement of the cloth relates to Lang Park, too, ‘as the living heart of Queensland football and the spiritual home for thousands of Queensland fans.’
After all these years, I was so pleased to see Jill’s work. I confess that it impressed me more than I imagined it would. It is impossible to value its full story and impact as you dash headlong up Hale Street. If you can, take some time out to appreciate the special place this site has in Brisbane’s history. And next time you go to a match, you will know exactly what this artwork represents.
It’s worth pausing. To remember.
Thanks go to Glen Henderson, curator of the art installations at Suncorp Stadium, for her assistance and insights, which were of great help to me when I was writing this article.
This article was first published in the Brisbane Times on 30 May, 2017.